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Man found innocent, but R.I. County still wants his 10-year-old truck

Bart Johnson stands in front of the street that runs in front of his house in rural Hillsdale Friday. Mr. Johnson is fighting a contentious legal battle to get his truck out of impound, taken in what he says was a wrongly brought civil forfeiture case against him.

Bart Johnson's truck has sat for five months in an impound lot while he resists Rock Island County prosecutors attempting to strip ownership from him.

The 21-year-old Hillsdale man, who works as a farmhand in the Barstow area, said he never expected he and his pickup — a 2006 Ford Ranger he bought off his stepdad two years ago for $4,000 — would be the subject of a contentious legal battle.

"What they're doing is wrong and they won't admit it," he said during a recent interview.

At issue is whether Mr. Johnson was driving on a suspended license when police pulled him over on Sept. 12. The state computer system the officer checked listed Mr. Johnson's license as suspended, leading  police to arrest him and seize his truck.

But a clerical error in the Rock Island County circuit clerk's system meant the state had old information. The driving-while-suspended charge was dismissed, but the county's attempt to take the truck continues in circuit court.

The paperwork

In June of 2015, Mr. Johnson was arrested in Rock Island County for driving under the influence of alcohol.

At a July 20 hearing before Judge Carol Pentuic, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor DUI offense with the understanding, stated in the plea agreement, that he would not lose his driver's license. 

Mr. Johnson said he left the hearing believing he was legally allowed to drive. About six weeks later, on Sept. 12, he was pulled over by a Rock Island County Sheriff's deputy.

"He basically said, 'Your license is suspended. You're going to jail,'" Mr. Johnson said.

"I tried telling him what happened. I told him the whole story," he said. "It didn't really matter. He was doing his job — when he pulls up my record, it says it was suspended."

Mr. Johnson contacted attorney Nick Mason, who represented him in the DUI case, to explain what happened.

Mr. Mason called the Rock Island County Circuit Clerk's office and learned paperwork from Mr. Johnson's July 20 plea hearing — including a notice stating the suspension of his license had been rescinded — was never sent to the Illinois Secretary of State.

After discovering the error, the clerk's office immediately notified the Secretary of State facility in Silvis, according to court documents. The following month, the traffic citation issued to Mr. Johnson when his truck was seized was dismissed.

But that hasn't stopped prosecutors from continuing to pursue a civil forfeiture case against Mr. Johnson's truck.

Prosecutors look to keep truck

A forfeiture complaint filed by Assistant State's Attorney Justin Umlah says the suspension of Mr. Johnson's license did go into effect, days after his July 20 plea hearing, and that he then continued to drive on a suspended license.

The complaint asks that Mr. Johnson's rights to the vehicle be terminated and the truck be declared forfeited and either sold at a public auction, destroyed or given to law enforcement.

Civil asset forfeiture laws, which vary between states, allow law enforcement agencies to seize cash, vehicles and other property believed to be linked to criminal activity without the owner having to be charged or convicted of a crime. As a civil matter, property owners do not receive the aid of a court-appointed attorney.

Mr. Johnson said he tried to represent himself in the forfeiture case, as he couldn't afford an attorney, but, unaccustomed to civil procedures, "I filed one of the papers wrong." 

"I should just get my truck back," he said. "From everything I was told and knew, my license was never suspended."

He eventually reached out to Larry Vandersnick, a Cambridge-based defense attorney with experience defending forfeiture cases, who agreed to represent Mr. Johnson at no charge. 

Among other filings, Mr. Vandersnick submitted a motion seeking summary judgment in his client's case. The motion — which maintains that Mr. Johnson's driving privileges were never suspended — asks Judge Gregory Chickris, who has presided over the forfeiture case, to dismiss the matter and order the return of Mr. Johnson's truck.

"I can't understand why they're pursuing it," Mr. Vandersnick said.

A hearing on the motion for summary judgment has yet to be scheduled.

The state's case

Rock Island County State's Attorney John McGehee said he believes the Secretary of State, and not the courts, has discretion in determining whether someone is valid to drive.

Law-enforcement officers file sworn statements with the Secretary of State after a DUI arrest, Mr. McGehee said. The suspension of a person's license would take effect unless the Secretary of State received paperwork from the court saying the suspension had been rescinded.

Mr. McGehee said the Secretary of State's office would then review the person's driving record and decide whether to reinstate their driving privileges.

Records from the July 20 plea hearing say the court rescinded the suspension of Mr. Johnson's driver's license before it was set to take effect.

Mr. McGehee, however, said he believed Mr. Johnson should have waited for verification from the Secretary of State's office before getting behind the wheel. 

"There are so many hands involved with this, so it's always upon the defendant to make sure his privileges have been reinstated and that he knows that," Mr. McGehee said. "It's our position he was driving suspended until the Secretary of State removes that suspension."

Mr. McGehee said he and Mr. Umlah intend to meet to discuss the case with Mr. Vandersnick and his client in the near future. He declined to say what he believed would be an effective resolution to the case.

"It's not that I'm randomly picking on this guy," Mr. McGehee said, adding his job was to review the facts of each case in order to "serve and protect" the community and drivers on the road.

"I am monitoring this case," he said. "I believe we have an ethical obligation to see if we can try to resolve this case."

A waiting game

Mr. Johnson sees it differently. Had paperwork from his July 20 plea hearing been sent immediately to the Secretary of State, he says he would not be in this predicament. 

For him, it's a waiting game.

Months without a vehicle has forced him to rely on others for rides.

"Basically, I lost the life I had — I can't get to work on my own, can't hang out with my friends," Mr. Johnson said. He said he's relied on his mother over the past five months to get to and from work —difficult, given his job's varying hours and the fact he doesn't have money to afford another vehicle.

Mr. Johnson said after his truck was seized, he tried to collect some of his possessions left inside but, "they wouldn't even let me touch my truck." Among the items in the truck, he said, is a prized family heirloom — his late grandfather's wedding ring.

"When he passed, they gave me his ring. He and I were really close," Mr. Johnson said, adding he used to wear the ring on a necklace or keep it in his truck while driving.

He hopes for the return of his possession, to correct what he sees as a simple clerical mistake . But he's not sure that will happen.

"I know it will get resolved," he said. "I just have no idea what way it's going to go.

"I'm just hoping somebody will see my side," Mr. Johnson said.  "Our system doesn't do its job correctly."

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